By GEOFF MULVIHILL, JUSTIN PRITCHARD and DAVE KOLPACK
As public health officials warned Friday that the coronavirus posed new risks to parts of the Midwest and South, enhanced federal payments that helped avert financial ruin for millions of unemployed Americans were set to expire — leaving threadbare safety nets offered by individual states to catch them.
Since early in the pandemic, the federal government has added $600 to the weekly unemployment checks that states send. That increase ends this week, and with Congress still haggling over next steps, most states will not be able to offer nearly as much.
The extra federal aid helped keep Wally Wendt and his family afloat.
Wendt, 54, of Everett, Washington, was laid off from the fitness company where he worked for 31 years. The extra federal benefits helped him pay a loan to put a new roof on his house that he took out before the virus struck and the economy cratered.
The money also helps his daughter, who lost her restaurant job. With the boost, she can afford diapers, baby formula, rent and utilities. Without it, Wendt said, his daughter and her two children might move in with him.
“The politicians need to get their ducks in a row.” Wendt said. “The pressure’s not on them, it’s on all of us blue-collar workers who are struggling to make a living.”
In addition to the end of the $600 payments, federal protections against evictions also are set to expire.
Standard unemployment benefits often leave recipients with poverty-level incomes, but at least they are sure to continue, even as states wrestle with diminishing unemployment trust funds.
Every state offers assistance for at least some unemployed workers based on a portion of their previous earnings. The maximum amounts vary widely, from $235 a week in Mississippi to $1,234 in Massachusetts. Benefits are available for as few as six weeks in Georgia and up to 28 weeks in Montana. Most states normally cut people off after 26 weeks.
Aside from the pandemic’s economic damage, the virus itself threatens to overwhelm parts of the country that have been relatively unscathed.
White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx warned in a television interview that the surge of cases in the South and Southwest could make its way north.
“What started out very much as a Southern and Western epidemic is starting to move up the East Coast, into Tennessee, Arkansas, up into Missouri, up across Colorado,” Birx told NBC’s “Today” show. She implored people to wear masks, wash hands and keep at least 6 feet apart.
In Missouri, confirmed cases have risen sharply since Republican Gov. Mike Parson allowed the state to reopen in mid-June. The number of positive tests set a record three days in a row this week.
Masks continue to be a national flashpoint. Police in Green Bay, Wisconsin, were investigating death threats made against elected city officials over a new mandate requiring face coverings in public buildings.
Birx said health professionals have “called out the next set of cities” where they see early warning signs because if those cities make changes now they “won’t become a Phoenix.” Arizona’s sprawling capital has suffered a severe outbreak, though Birx said Friday the federal government was seeing encouraging declines in positive test results there and in San Antonio, which like much of Texas has been hard hit.